The empirical ways of the Rural Fire Service

Opinion: Mal Peters reckons most times, you need a good dose of commonsense

Opinion
The Rural Fire Service has become a behemoth that could do well to lower its sights a little, writes Mal Peters, who helped found the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association.

The Rural Fire Service has become a behemoth that could do well to lower its sights a little, writes Mal Peters, who helped found the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association.

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Do you buy more firefighting jets, or do you talk more, act more as a community?

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Like many farmers I have been fighting bushfires for over 40 years doing no more than any farmer in helping neighbours.

But in that time I have watched the Rural Fire Service (RFS) develop into a mega bureaucracy that is probably justified in the hinterland of cities and towns but appears overly bureaucratic and expensive around broadacre farms.

Generalisations always get you into trouble, but I think it's fair to say that within 30 kilometres of most towns are those predominantly smaller blocks, affectionately known as "blockies".

These poor buggers are prevented from making decent fire breaks because of native vegetation laws.

Couple that with being next door to public land - which in some cases doesn't have stock grazing - fuel loads can become a problem.

I don't like it when farmers' reputations are smeared, as they were during a recent episode of The Drum on ABC television where I was a fellow panellist with Greg Mullins, a former chief of NSW RFS.

The discussion was about the perennial problem of fuel reduction burns and I expressed the opinion the RFS had clamped the window so tightly on fire permits it was difficult to mange fuel loads.

Mr Mullins then said farmers often allowed fires to get away and burn national parks.

My experience doesn't suggest that, so I asked if he knew whether the alleged offenders were broadacre farmers or blockies.

He then said there were no blockies around Tenterfield.

I reckon there's hundreds.

As the RFS expanded, tensions developed between farmers and the paid staff, and I was proud to be part of the establishment of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (VFFA) when Peter Cannon started it trying to counter the RFS Association.

Another concern of farmers is the huge cost of the RFS and with people like Greg Mullins advocating for 30 fire-fighting jets the cost will only grow.

The RFS has become an unassailable empire that is paid for by our insurance levee (73 per cent), the stamp duty on that levee (16pc) and local government rates (11pc).

So don't thank state governments - those paying insurance and rates are stumping up for the bill.

A recent move to tie the charges to council rates was dropped by the NSW government after it spent $25 million exploring stuff without much explanation of anything it found out.

That would have brought in the 10pc of people who do not insure buildings and 35pc not insuring contents.

Nobody questions the value of the RFS in urban and town hinterlands, but farmers worry about the exponential increase in our fire levy and council rates.

If the RFS plans to buy 30 big jets it will only get worse.

It is time the state government put the brakes on spending.

- MAL PETERS

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